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From Smallest Brewery in America to Craft Beer Icons, Dogfish Head Is Still Getting Weird

No one challenged the old German beer rules in America more than Dogfish Head's Sam Calagione — and American craft beer is better off because of that. We chatted with Calagione as Dogfish Head turned 25-years-old this month.

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When it first opened its doors in 1995, Dogfish Head was making a shade over 12 gallon batches of beer at a time. The brewery, situated in the sleepy beach town of Rehoboth in southern Delaware, was officially the smallest commercial beer-maker in America. This July, it's celebrating its 25th year in business (now part of the larger Boston Beer Company) while making roughly 250,000 gallons of beer a week.

But for all Dogfish Head's change in scale, there are constants, and perhaps none as singularly important as head brewer Sam Calagione.

Calagione is known for the energy with which he pursues what have become the brewery's, and arguably American craft beer as a whole's, hallmarks — a culinary-like approach to brewing beer, and aggressive, unrelenting experimentation.

A new book, The Dogfish Head Book: 25 Years of Off-Centered Adventures (publishing September 1), looks back at the brewery's timeline through the lens of one beer from each year of brewing. We caught up with Calagione over the phone to chat about 25 years of Dogfish Head, how the merger with Samuel Adams has changed things, a little Ralph Waldo Emerson and where he sees Dogfish Head going as it pushes into another quarter-century of existence.

Dogfish Head

Gear Patrol: Congratulations on 25 years of DFH. That’s huge.

Sam Calagione: I guess it is, it makes me feel old. We’re still as innovative when we were the smallest brewery in the country, so that part makes me feel young.

Q: When you were coming to the idea of starting Dogfish Head in the 90s, who were you looking to for inspiration?

A: I lived in New York City and I was taking writing classes at Columbia. I worked at a first-generation beer bar to learn more about the different beers that were out there. We were selling Sam Adams, Brooklyn, Sierra Nevada, Chimay and so people like Jim Koch and Ken Grossman for Sierra became mentors once I got to know them.

Honestly, in terms of touchstones for Dogfish when I was writing the business plan, I would say someone like Alice Waters or the food educator James Beard were bigger influences inspiring me to create a unique mission for Dogfish Head which I wove into the business.

The first page of my business plan was this Emerson quote that’s still Dogfish Head’s rallying cry. But the second page said Dogfish Head will be the first commercial brewery in America committed to brewing the majority of our beers outside the Reinheitsgebot, incorporating culinary ingredients into our journey.

Q: Which Emerson quote is that?

A: "Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness but must explore it if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind."

We always said it was too long to fit on a six-pack, so we shortened it to 'off-centered ales for off-centered people.'

Dogfish Head

Q: Dogfish Head was literally the smallest brewery in America upon opening — how, uh, was that?

A: We opened in '95 and were fortunate to be busy with our little brewery inside of a restaurant right from the beginning. In '96 we opened a separate production brewery from our restaurant brewery and kept both opened. And that production brewery lost money from '96 to '99 because we were brewing all these exotic beers with maple syrup and raisins and brown sugar, and they’re more expensive to make so we had to charge more. So our beers were not selling well in cities like Philadelphia and D.C. and Baltimore.

Even in the craft brewing community from '95 to '99 when I would show up at beer festivals with Raison D’Etre or Aprihop (the first fruited IPA), a lot of other brewers and first-generation [craft] beer drinkers didn’t think it was cool. They weren’t happy with it. They were like, 'Hey why are you screwing with traditional beer recipes? What you’re doing is disrespectful.' So there was a lot of either laughing at us or getting mad at us for putting what they thought was weird ingredients into beer. But the year 1999 there was a perfect storm of positive energy for Dogfish.

Q: Right, you released a pretty famous beer in 1999, too.

A: 1999 was probably the most pivotal year because it was the year we released the first Imperial IPA in America, 90 Minute IPA. It was the year we released Midas Touch, an ancient ale hybrid between a mead wine and a beer. And it was the year we won Malt Advocate Magazine’s Beer of the Year with our Raison D’etra and also the pioneering beer journalist Michael Jackson wrote a very positive story about Dogfish Head in All About Beer Magazine. Suddenly, Esquire Magazine called 90 Minute the best IPA in America and Food & Wine did a story about Midas Touch.

And then from 2000 on, really until about 2017, we grew double digits every year in a row for over 16 years. That was kind of pivotal.

Q: 90 Minute is obviously a game-changing beer. Why do you think 90 Minute was — and continues to be — such a hit?

A: Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder. And there’s tons of different kinds of beers to hold. But you’re right in that in the entire history of the modern craft brewing renaissance, from 1980 [when] Sierra Nevada opened to today, there’s never been a single beer style that’s been so impactful in terms of volumetric rise in craft beer. But today’s younger beer lovers would probably assume IPA was always the biggest style in craft and that’s just not the case.

When we first did 90 Minute in 1999, if you look at data from that era, the best-selling craft beer styles back then were Ambers, Lagers, Seasonal Beers, Pale Ales and I think IPAs were fifth of sixth. But now, it’s like every other craft beer sold in America is an IPA. I think 90 Minute was so pivotal because it took a style that was known to be a little bit more hoppy than the classic Pale Ale and basically just turned the volume to 11 — the classic American approach to anything that bigger is better and bolder is better. Back then no one was doing that.

dogfish head 90 minute ipa
Henry Phillips

When we released 90 Minute, hop heads started coming out of the walls. We say that, people that are into hoppy beers go through a Lupulin (the natural hop resin) threshold shift because their palette gets used to a certain level of hops and they want more. So they ratchet up their hop experience. I think not just Dogfish, but other breweries like Bell’s and Russian River and Sierra, benefited from that Lupulin threshold as did the entire craft brewing movement. And then IPAs became such a juggernaut that the IPA category fragmented into sub-styles like Imperial IPA, Session IPA, New England IPA, Lo-Cal IPA.

Q: As you said, today’s craft beer world is wildly different than it was back then. What’s the biggest challenge facing craft breweries right now?

A: Obviously, the COVID moment is our biggest challenge. If you separate and say we’re hopeful we can get through that as a global community, the next challenge is craft brewers figuring out innovative products that keep younger consumers excited about craft beer. Seltzer is the fastest-growing alcohol segment. They have interesting, diverse flavors, they deliver on a wellness proposition in that they’re only 100 calories. So they have those things that younger consumers are generally gravitating towards with their life choices and prioritization right now. And there are plenty of awesome craft beers that deliver similar active lifestyle attributes, but overall, craft beer it’s thirty, forty years old. How do we stay relevant to the younger consumer? I think it’s about getting back to our roots of risk-taking and innovation.

Whereas there’s lots of amazing indie craft breweries in every town in America, that’s a beautiful thing. I think we’ve got to really double down on our capabilities to innovate versus the fast follower model of 'Oh that person came out with something that people seem excited about, I’m going to copy that.' I think there’s a little too much of that going on these days.

Q: You've also just produced your first hard seltzer. Where do you see hard seltzers fitting in within a brewery’s offerings? And are there plans to distribute Hoppy Medium at all in the future?

A: I think we will see a lot of breweries creating and sharing their own versions of hard seltzer. We at Dogfish Head have always been focused on expanding the definition of beer – from our first beer-wine hybrid, Raison D'Etre, to our first off-centered, scratch-made spirits, which we began releasing almost 20 years ago. We’ve taken our learnings from these related creative worlds and combined them to create our new seltzer offering. We don’t have plans to distribute Hoppy Medium hard seltzer outside of Delaware at this time, but we’re looking forward to seeing what people who visit us think of this new innovation; and if they feel they’d like to see us distribute, that’s something we’d definitely consider.

Q: Allagash, Sierra Nevada and yourselves all celebrate milestone anniversaries this year. What does that say about you all, especially since there’s now more than 8,000 breweries in the country?

A: First, happy anniversaries to our friends at Allagash and Sierra Nevada. I’d say the biggest two qualities that our three brands share are an obsession with quality. It might not be the sexiest thing, but if you go to Allagash or Dogfish or Sierra Nevada, you’ll see world-class laboratories — at Dogfish Head we have a full-time PhD in Chemistry, a full-time PhD in Biology, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of testing equipment and every beer goes through a 40-quality checkpoints before it’s released.

So I’d say number one we share a commitment to world-class quality and consistency. And I’d say number two, I think each of us have all done a good job of having distinct and well-defined brand voices that’s consistent through our packaging to how we present ourselves and our brand on social media to how we treat our co-workers as integral to our creative journey. Our commitment to giving back to our communities is something that I think we all share. I’d also say I’m proud to say that I think our product lines are also very distinct from each other, too.

Q: In light of everything going on in America at the moment, do breweries have a duty within their communities to help spur change?

A: Yeah, I think a brewery’s first commitment to its community has to be to the internal community of co-workers. My wife Mariah and I were just on a call looking at the surge in COVID cases being reported in our state and thinking, 'Ok how do we work with our fellow leaders on making sure we’re prioritizing the safety of our co-workers?' I think caring for community starts at home with your community of co-workers, but then when you feel you’re doing the right thing there, looking out in concentric circles geographically on how you can take care of your external community.

For us, a big choice was converting the majority of our production capacity of our distillery to make hand sanitizer and our number one customer is the state of Delaware, hospitals, police departments, fire departments. We’re using the profits of the sales of the sanitizer to establish a grant program for out of work hospitality people in our state was another part of how we reacted. Mariah and I put in $100,000 from our own foundation to seed that grant program.

Each brewery does their own thing, which is great because it also mirrors how they come to market with their beers and should be distinct with whatever their program to engage and proactively try to help our country navigate through the COVID moment. It’s been really heartwarming to see how many breweries from Other Half to Sierra Nevada to Sam Adams have established programs to help our country move forward.

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Ryan Brower

Q: What’s changed at Dogfish Head since the merger with Boston Beer?

A: We have five times as many people out selling our beer as we did when we were a mom and pop opening. Our resources to bring innovative new products to market has been exponentially increased with the resources of the greater Boston Beer network. Because of our scale as a combined company, we now have better scale to get better health benefits for our co-workers. What’s interesting is while we may be one of the biggest indie craft breweries now that we merged (Boston Beer and Yuengling are the two biggest that first within the Brewer Association’s definition of an indie craft brewery) in the context of market share, we’re still Davids up against Goliath — not much has changed there. Dogfish Head and Sam Adams combined still has less than two percent market share of beer in America, up against ABI that has almost 50 percent and Molson Coors, who has over 20 percent. So we’re still David among Goliaths but we’re a better resourced David now.

Q: You’ve had so many mega hits from 90 Minute IPA to SeaQuench Ale to Slightly Mighty Lo-Cal IPA and more. What to you stands out as the defining Dogfish Head beer?

A: I’d have to SeaQuench Ale. Volumetrically we make more IPAs than any [other] style, but in terms of us coming up with a really unique, innovate product that takes both German brewing heritage and a culinary creative approach with the sea salt and the black limes, and have it be a beer be very low in bitterness and yet very friendly for food pairing.

It’s a beer that can appeal to beer geeks who love sour beer, but it’s also a beer that can appeal to margarita drinkers and white wine drinkers. So it’s probably our most versatile beer. That’s probably the one that I’m most proud of in terms of so unique to Dogfish and the fact that it is the best-selling sour beer in America shows that’s resonating with consumers, too.

Q: What do you envision the next 25 years have in store for DFH?

A: I think we’re going to keep putting the 'where' in Delaware and the 'mental' in experimental. Nothing’s changed, we actually have our bigger brewing systems (our 100-barrel and 200-barrel systems) going every week. But we also now have a one-barrel brewery, a five-barrel brewery and a seven-barrel brewery, so we’re throwing our Jackson Pollack’s at the wall on all these systems every week. So we’ve never been more innovative in our past than we are today. And I only see those innovation capabilities continuing to be amplified as we move into our next quarter century.

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